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From Health Food To Health Risk: Sprouts Slip Off The Menu

At the rate they're going, those nutritious-looking sprouts may disappear from sandwiches and salads near you in not too long. And that may be a good thing.

This week, the Beaumont, Tex.-based Jason's Deli chain announced that it would no longer serve fresh sprouts, citing frequent recalls due to bacterial contamination.

"We've lost confidence in sprouts," Daniel Helfman, the chain's director of public relations, told The Packer, a produce trade journal. The chain has more than 230 restaurants around the country.

Meanwhile, European health officials met in Brussels this week to discuss the serious outbreak caused by sprouts last year. More than 50 people died and thousands were sickened in Germany and France, after eating fenugreek sprouts contaminated with E. Coli 0104.

At the time, health officials warned Europeans to shun sprouts unless they were well cooked.

That was followed by a far less serious June 2011 Salmonella outbreak in the United States, caused by alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts. And the list goes on. In the past two months, there have been recalls of sprouts grown in Texas that tested positive for Listeria, another potentially fatal pathogen, and of Miami-grown sprouts that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

Sprouts of any kind — alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean, to name a few — now rate their own warning page on foodsafety.gov, which notes at least 30 outbreaks of illness associated with raw sprouts since 1996.

The sprout seeds are usually to blame for harboring bacteria, and as they grow, the warmth and moisture helps the bacteria multiply quickly.

Many sprout growers treat sprouts with chlorine and other antimicrobials to kill them, but that hasn't stopped the problems. The European officials hope to figure out if there's anything they can do to prevent sprouts-related outbreaks of food-borne illness.

There are lots of ideas afloat on how to make sprouts safer. They include growing them in drinking-quality water; testing them for bacteria before sale; and tracing their source.

But "no treatment is guaranteed to eliminate all harmful bacteria," according to the website, which is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. And growing them at home isn't a surefire way to to protect against illness, either.

That's not much of a change from 2005, when William Fett, a research plant pathologist for the USDA, testified at an FDA meeting on sprout safety that "during the sprouting process there's no effective way of eliminating Salmonella or E. coli 0157:H7."

Irradiating sprouts after they're grown with beta or gamma rays would probably do the trick, but that would require government approval.

The government's advice? "Request that raw sprouts not be added to your food." They even suggest that restaurant customers double-check to make sure that sprouts haven't sneaked into their sandwich or salad.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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